Okoboji lakes area overflows with changes

July 1, 2019

Spend just about any amount of time in the Iowa Great Lakes area and it likely won’t be long before you encounter someone from the Sioux Falls area.

“It’s a great market for us,” said Rebecca Peters, Okoboji tourism director, who credits “the distance and the fact that all their friends are here and they have fun.”

Sioux Falls residents and others discovering the northwest Iowa summer hot spot have generated enough demand for significant business growth in recent years, with multiple hotel, retail and entertainment projects in various stages of completion.

“We’ve seen (visitor) numbers up slightly from last year, and so far the weather has cooperated this year,” Peters said. “It seems like there’s always a lot new in this area, but in the last five years, things have been changing drastically.”

Hospitality growth

A large hotel and condominium presence in the Okoboji area with a Sioux Falls connection is getting bigger.

Bridges Bay opened in 2007, built and designed by Equity Homes and operated by Regency Hotel Management, both Sioux Falls-based companies.

“Every year the occupancy rate have increased, and every time we’re adding more (units), and we’re still going up as far as occupancy,” Equity’s Jon Broek said.

While much of the development in recent years has involved condos, the new Summerlake building opening this week is a “condo-tel,” offering two dozen condos, or 68 guest rooms, that can be rented hotel-style similar to the original Bridges Bay building.

“The designs are very unique. It’s not like conventional hotel rooms,” Broek said.

“We were inspired by Disney World and studied the rooms there.”

Guest rooms feature barn doors, lofted beds, 60-inch to 75-inch televisions and local, historic art.

Since Bridges Bay expanded its event space, hotel rooms have been maxed out, Broek said.

“Our hotel building is always full, and we have bigger companies that want to come have meetings and gatherings at the resort, and we didn’t have room for a one- or two-night stay.”

While it’s built as condos, the building isn’t selling them to owners at this point. But the property continues to build and sell condos. The newest building, Bayside, offers 32 three- and four-bedroom units, and 10 are sold. They range from $349,900 to $599,000.

Equity just put in foundations for 10 more loft cabins too.

The new additions bring the property to about 400 units, but there’s room for more.

“We have another large building we’ll still do, and we have other ideas for cottages for short-term stays,” Broek said. “And there’s always turnover, but resales are quick. The cabins are gone in a day or two, and the condos, if they’re priced right, are selling real quick.”

The Okoboji area also has a new boutique hotel. The Inn Hotel is a 38-room property in Arnolds Park that opened around Memorial Day and evokes the 1920s and ’30s.

“That’s the vibe you get walking into our hotel – an old grand hotel and luxury,” general manager Ryan Dotson said. “It’s very much a boutique experience.”

An outdoor pool is uniquely located on the second level and includes “a giant teak pool deck … and six rooms that open directly onto the pool deck,” Dotson said.

Room rates range from $150 to $400 for a suite.

The Inn also includes Beach Club Lounge, a full-service restaurant and bar with a Cuban-inspired cuisine that specializes in craft cocktails.

A small banquet room can seat up to four dozen.

“We’ve had quite a few reservations (from Sioux Falls),” Dotson said. “Weekends are getting pretty full, but weekdays there’s a little more availability.”

Other longtime hotels also have been making renovations, including Arrowwood Resort and Conference Center, which updated all its rooms, lobby and meetings rooms; Fillenwarth Beach Resort, which renovated its lobby and office; and Vintage Block Inn and Suites, which did a major refresh of walls, ceilings and floors.

The tourism department estimates there are about 1,200 hotel rooms in the area.

“The renovations have been amazing,” Peters said. “We’ve been seeing that our lodges and resorts and hotels have really been making some good investments lately.”

Food, beverages and fun

The hub of the Iowa Great Lakes arguably is Arnolds Park, where multiple improvements are underway.

The new Arnolds Park Promenade is under construction and will serve as an enhanced gateway to the area, with nine arches, 4,700 pavers, benches, trees and flowers, overlooking West Lake Okoboji.

An all-new roof garden is schedule to be done in late July, with grand-opening concerts in August.

The Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum has been completely redone.

And a nostalgic roller coaster, The Wild Mouse, is a new addition at Arnolds Park Amusement Park.

“It’s a center point of our community,” Peters said. “They’re really sprucing it up, and it will be really nice.”

Nearby, the Gingham Inn is bringing back an old Okoboji favorite: its signature fried chicken and ribs.

“It’s a really cute place to stay, but they had so many people sad the chicken was gone they built a little to-go building to bring back all the favorites, so that’s a nice addition,” Peters said. “It’s a nod to what people used to love about the area.”

Other new attractions include The Throwing Post, an ax-throwing bar, and the Paddle Tap, the equivalent to a Sip-and-Cycle on water.

The entrepreneurs behind Parks Marina, which has a Sioux Falls location too, and many other Okoboji-area ventures also have been busy adding to their portfolios.

Butch and Debbie Parks added boat storage to their business last season, with a huge boat rack storage building that also serves as a showroom for pontoons.

The boats are stacked in a 40,000-square-foot building that can accommodate hundreds of them.

“It’s an in-and-out service, so you buy a boat from Parks, we store it on the rack, and you call us on your way from Sioux Falls, and we load the boat into the water for you, and it will be uncovered and ready, and when you come back we load it out,” Debbie Parks said.

Another new addition in the building is Snappers Turtle Bay Cafe, a two-story venue offering lunch and dinner with private event space upstairs.

“It’s lakeside dining with moderately priced summer beach food,” Parks said. “It’s doing really well. We’re really proud of it.”

They should be, Peters said.

“They did such a good job with it. You sit there and feel like you’re on vacation,” she said. “They’ve got lawn games if you have kids so they can stay busy and have fun. It’s really pretty. They knocked it out of the park.”

They also own Central Emporium, where they have added Palm at the Park, a shop selling Lilly Pulitzer apparel – the only specialty store for the retailer in Iowa.

“We have people drive down from Sioux Falls,” Parks said. “It’s resort wear. We really had to work hard to get them, and we’ve been working hard to show Okoboji a totally different West Palm Beach look.”

The Parks family isn’t done, either.

“We would love to have a hotel,” Parks said. “We bought another 20 acres, and the long-term goal is to partner with a hotel and add a 400-unit convention hotel with all the lakeside amenities to go with it. Someday – I don’t know when – but we’re looking far out into the future.”

Okoboji lakes area overflows with changes

Sioux Falls residents and others discovering the northwest Iowa summer hot spot have generated enough demand for significant business growth in recent years, with multiple hotel, retail and entertainment projects in various stages of completion.

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